Apple’s vanishing release notes: arrogance or incompetence?

One measure of how any business treats its customers is how well it keeps them informed, the quality and quantity of its communications with those customers. There doesn’t seem to be any published metric for this, although various agencies are keen to tell us about more nebulous measurements such as brand image – perhaps because the agencies are trying to sell their services to ‘improve’ brand image, whatever that might mean.

While Apple is flying high in most respects, thanks to Tim Cook’s brave stand on personal privacy and Apple’s legendary after-sales support, it has its low points too. For many, the latest nadir has been reached in failing to tell us what its updates actually update.

Traditionally, Apple has provided two separate sets of information about its operating system updates: the general release note, and full details of security changes. These have been provided for each update to OS X, and separately for updates to OS X Server. Less than a year ago, for instance, when it released OS X Yosemite 10.10.4 on 30 June 2015, there was quite a long list of changes, and a far longer list of security fixes.

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Since the release of OS X 10.11 El Capitan just three months later, such information has dried up.

The most recent release of OS X 10.11.5 and OS X Server 5.1.5 was shocking in the complete lack of information released by Apple on what was included. Other than four small changes affecting enterprise users, all Apple could tell us about OS X 10.11.5 was that it was an update.

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Surely every system software update aims to improve its ‘stability, compatibility, and security’? Although some have in fact achieved the opposite, Apple’s information amounts to tautology, those bytes are vacuous. It might have been better off not posting that note at all, and we could have pretended that Apple had forgotten to post the information, rather than withholding it from us.

The situation was no better with OS X Server 5.1.5, released yesterday, where someone filling the form in could only stretch to seven words when prompted to enter a bullet list of “specific improvements”.

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The security notes accompanying OS X 10.11.5 were much more detailed, listing each vulnerability which has been addressed in the update. Apple will send these out to you via a mailing list if you wish: a valuable service which is now the only way of knowing some of the changes in its products. Except that this time, there is no security note about OS X Server 5.1.5, neither posted to Apple’s product security page, nor sent in its mailing list.

If you went into one of Apple’s stores and asked them what improvements there were in, say, an iPad Pro 9.7″ over an iPad Air 2, I am sure that their salesforce would not simply say “features”, but trot out a long list of the many changes. Why then is Apple not proud to tell us in detail how OS X 10.11.5 improves over 10.11.4?

I can think of three explanations for this unique lack of communication with its customers: Apple cannot be bothered, Apple does not even know itself what the changes are, or Apple does not want us to know. None of those is consistent with Apple’s other public images, and begs the question as to which is the real Apple.

Is the image of Tim Cook defending our rights to privacy just a veneer over the old, arrogant, secretive Apple which didn’t think that its customers should be bothered with such technical matters? Or is this just poor middle management which cannot be arsed to do its job properly? It certainly doesn’t help the user, or the system administrator, who has been struggling with some of the serious and long-standing bugs which have been left in El Capitan.

I can tell you though that OS X 10.11.5 still doesn’t fix Finder’s column width bug, which dates back to Mavericks, if not before. It will celebrate its third birthday this autumn.